Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Neill: is there a messiah behind myths?

By Stuart McKinley

Every time a major managerial role comes up he’s linked with the post. He tops the bookies’ odds, and fans all over the Premier League keep saying he’s the man they would like to be their next manager.

He’s even been mentioned as a possible successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United in the past — and even as a potential England manager.

And, when Nigel Worthington stepped down as Northern Ireland manager back in October, Martin O’Neill was the immediate choice of both the Green and White Army and the Irish FA.

Both were disappointed when the Kilrea man declared two weeks ago that he had no wish to manage his country at this particular time.

IFA President Jim Shaw and chief executive Patrick Nelson have since moved on to Plan B.

For Sunderland, however, it appears that their Plan A is to appoint O’Neill as the successor to Steve Bruce, who was sacked by the Black Cats on Wednesday. Last night it was understood that the job was O’Neill’s to turn down.

The big question, however, is does the 59-year-old possess the necessary qualities to lift the darkness which currently hangs over the Stadium of Light?

Does he deserve the status of being the first man linked to almost every job that comes up — and is O’Neill worthy of being handed the favourites tag by bookmakers on each occasion?

How can the frustrated Makem fans, who have seen a string of managers fail, be sure that he will deliver the good times they have been craving for years — and deliver it very quickly?

Is his story of success an urban myth — or is Martin O’Neill a real managerial messiah? Well, all the evidence points to the latter. With the exception of one job, every club that O’Neill has bossed have been in a much better position when he left compared to when he first sat down in the dug-out.

And not one of them is currently in as rude health as when he made his exit.

There is one exception — Norwich City, who he left after six months following a difference of opinion with the chairman.

It all started when he gained promotion to the Football League with Wycombe Wanderers and also won the FA Trophy twice before guiding them into the third tier of English football.

He also delivered silverware in two of the three most high profile posts he occupied.

Another point of principle led to O’Neill quitting his most recent job as manager of Aston Villa in August last year — days before the start of the Premier League season. And he’s been itching to get back since.

In recent months he has been strongly linked to two jobs, both of which would have seen O’Neill return to clubs where he enjoyed success in the past.

The first was Nottingham Forest where, as a player, the former Northern Ireland captain won a league title and then the European Cup.

Four years ago he was touted as the man to replace Steve McClaren as England manager. O’Neill didn’t get that job, nor did Forest think he was the right man to then take over when McClaren departed the City Ground.

Leicester City looked a more likely place for O’Neill to jump back into the shark-infested managerial waters.

The Foxes were stranded in the second tier of English football when O’Neill was installed in 1995.

Within months he had guided them to the promised land of the Premier League and sparked an incredible run of success for an unfashionable club.

Suddenly trips to Wembley — where they’d won the 1996 play-off final against Crystal Palace — started to become an almost annual event. There was a League Cup final against Middlesbrough, although they needed a replay at Hillsborough to lift the trophy.

A defeat to Spurs in the 1999 decider was followed by victory in 2000 against Tranmere Rovers.

At the same time Leicester edged up the table, finishing eighth in 2000 — two places higher than the previous season.

Backed by wealthy Thai businessmen, Leicester are desperate for Premier League football, but instead they turned to another former boss Nigel Pearson.

At Celtic, O’Neill ended Rangers’ run of 12 titles in 14 years with two Doubles — as well as a third success in the Scottish Premier League and a later Scottish Cup win. In 2003, when Rangers took the title, O’Neill guided the Bhoys to the Uefa Cup final, beating Blackburn Rovers and Liverpool to get there before losing to Jose Mourinho’s Porto.

Although an undoubted success at Parkhead, successor Gordon Strachan did even better, becoming only the third Celtic boss to win three successive league crowns.

When Villa came calling a year after O’Neill left Celtic to take care of his ill wife, he set about a revival that saw them finish 11th — five places higher than the previous season. They finished sixth in each of the next three seasons, but the top four proved elusive — partly down to the fact that the teams occupying those places benefited from Champions League millions.

The League Cup, a trophy close to O’Neill’s heart, slipped away in a 2010 final defeat to Manchester United.

He did, however, walk away from Villa, leaving them in the lurch just before the kick-off of the 2010-11 season. Mark Hughes (pictured) who is also in the running for the Sunderland post, did the same at Fulham, although he quit in mid-summer.

Can either man offer the stability so badly needed in the north-east? If O’Neill illuminates the Stadium of Light then he will truly be considered a messiah, no matter what the myths.

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